Flaxseed, or linseed (Linum usitatissimum L.), comes from the flax plant, which is an annual herb. The ancient Egyptians used it as both food and medicine. In the past, flaxseed was used mostly as a laxative. It is high in fiber and contain a gummy material called mucilage, both of which expand when they come in contact with water. They add bulk to stool and help it move more quickly through the intestines.
Although flaxseed contains all sorts of healthy components, it owes its primary healthy reputation to three of them:
Omega-3 essential fatty acids: “good” fats that have been shown to have heart-healthy effects. Each tablespoon of ground flaxseed contains about 1.8 grams of plant omega-3s.
Lignans: which have both plant estrogen and antioxidant qualities. Flaxseed contains 75 to 800 times more lignans than other plant foods.
Fiber: Both the soluble and insoluble types.
Flaxseed and its oil are rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid that may be helpful for heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease. The oil contains only ALA, not the fiber or lignans found in whole seed.
Studies suggest that flaxseed may help prevent and treat the following health conditions
Recent studies have suggested that flaxseed may have a protective effect against breast cancer, prostate cancer, and colon cancer. At least two of the components seem to contribute, said Kelley C. Fitzpatrick, Director of Health and Nutrition with the Flax Council of Canada.
In animal studies, the plant omega-3 fatty acid found in flaxseed, called ALA, inhibited tumor incidence and growth.
The lignans in may provide some protection against cancers that are sensitive to hormones without interfering with the breast cancer drug tamoxifen. Some studies have suggested that exposure to lignans during adolescence helps reduce the risk of breast cancer and may also increase the survival of breast cancer patients. Lignans may help protect against cancer by blocking enzymes that are involved in hormone metabolism and interfering with the growth and spread of tumor cells.
Some of the other components in flaxseed also have antioxidant properties, which may contribute to protection against cancer and heart disease.
Research suggests that plant omega-3s help the cardiovascular system through several different mechanisms, including anti-inflammatory action and normalizing the heartbeat. Fitzpatrick says new research also suggests significant blood pressure-lowering effects of flaxseed. Those effects may be due to both the omega-3 fatty acids as well as the amino acid groups present. Several studies have suggested that diets rich in flaxseed omega-3s help prevent hardening of the arteries and keep plaque from being deposited in the arteries partly by keeping white blood cells from sticking to the blood vessels’ inner linings.
“Lignans in flaxseed have been shown to reduce atherosclerotic plaque buildup by up to 75%,” Fitzpatrick stated.
Because plant omega-3s may also play a role in maintaining the heart’s natural rhythm, they may be useful in treating arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) and heart failure. More research is needed on this.
Eating flaxseed daily may also help your cholesterol levels. The level of LDL or “bad” cholesterol in the bloodstream has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. A study of menopausal women showed a decrease in LDL level after the women ate 4 tablespoons of ground seed each day for a year. Fitzpatrick says the cholesterol-lowering effects of flaxseed are the result of the combined benefits of the omega-3 ALA, fiber, and lignans.
Preliminary research also suggests that daily intake of the lignans in flaxseed may modestly improve blood sugar (as measured by hemoglobin A1c blood tests in adults with type 2 diabetes).
“Two components in flaxseed, ALA and lignans, may reduce the inflammation that accompanies certain illnesses (such as Parkinson’s disease and asthma) by helping block the release of certain pro-inflammatory agents” Fitzpatrick said.
ALA has been shown to decrease inflammatory reactions in humans. And studies in animals have found that lignans can decrease levels of several pro-inflammatory agents.
Reducing inflammation associated with plaque buildup in the arteries may be another way flaxseed helps prevent heart attack and strokes.
One study of menopausal women, published in 2007, reported that 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed mixed into cereal, juice, or yogurt twice a day cut their hot flashes in half. The intensity of their hot flashes also dropped by 57%. The women noticed a difference after taking the daily flaxseed for just one week and achieved the maximum benefit within two weeks.
Quite some controversies regarding the benefits and ill effects of flax seeds have been doing the rounds of media and educative websites. While some state the medical wonders since time immemorial, others talk of the potential demerits. The presence of phytoestrogens is reportedly not conducive to health of women with a history of breast cancer and ovarian disorders. Phytic acid, another component preventing premature germination of seeds, might deprive you of the minerals you ingest.
Flaxseeds are bad for health remains inconclusive with impending results of tests conducted. Whether or not flaxseeds are good for you individually should be discussed with your doctor. Anything in excess is potentially damaging and keeping that in mind, one should be careful to pop only a certain amount in mouth.